With normalcy returning to the tourism sector after the government removed almost all kinds of Covid-19 restrictions to vaccinated tourists in late September, debates related to the kind of tourism-- quantity or quality-- needed have gained momentum lately. While the focus of the government and many in the tourism fraternity seems to be on attracting tourists in huge numbers like in 2019 when 1.2 million visited, the highest in record, voices have also been heard in favour of a shift from quantity to quality tourism.
The proponents of quality tourism argue that this will make Nepal's tourism stronger and sustainable in the long run. This is because the average spending of tourists coming to Nepal was recorded at a 7-year low of USD 44 per day in 2019. Despite the rise in the number of tourists, the average length of stay in the country was just 12.7 days in 2019, a marginal increase from 12.6 days in 2017.
Travel and tourism entrepreneurs say that the time is right for the government and private sector to work together to formulate policies and strategies to attract high-spending tourists. "We need to consider how countries across the world have made a paradigm shift in their tourism strategies," said Pankaj Pradhananga, director of Four Season Travel & Tours. "We need a high number of visitors and at the same time we also need them to stay in the country longer."
Ashok Pokharel, director and chief operating officer of Shangri La Tours agrees with Pradhananga that it is high time for tourism stakeholders to focus on 'quality tourism' over 'mass tourism.' "Now is the time. Much needs to be done. Our focus should be on high earning from tourism activities than tourist numbers. The plans have to be simple, realistic and doable," he said.
With the increase in vaccination rates and declining Covid-19 cases, the international tourism market is expected to undergo a rapid recovery and reach 2019 levels by 2023. However, tourism experts in Nepal say that the country's tourism will take at least five years to fully recover from the pandemic. According to Deepak Raj Joshi, former CEO of Nepal Tourism Board, it will take time for foreigners to realise that Nepal is safe to visit as most of the South Asian countries were on the travel red list of developed countries. "Fortunately, Nepal was removed from the list. With the easing of international travel restrictions, countries like the Maldives have been trying hard to attract tourists and promote their tourism vigorously. Nepal, too, needs to attempt to promote tourism based on quality instead of quantity if we want sustainable recovery," he also stressed.
Like other forms of tourism, luxury or high-end tourism, designed to satisfy the lavish expectations of rich individuals, has also gone through a steeper decline since the start of the pandemic in early 2020. However, high-end tourism is expected to bounce back and become even stronger with the forces of the pandemic becoming weaker. The World Travel and Tourism Council has forecasted that luxury tourism will have a compound annual growth rate of 16 percent from 2021 to 2026. Other studies and forecasts have also pointed to a big rebound in luxury tourism. Nepali travel and tourism entrepreneurs say that a focus on high-end tourism will be important for Nepal to profit from this growth.
"We are obsessed with quantity rather than quality. The goal of welcoming one million tourists a year, which was set 20 years ago, was finally met in 2019. But it has pushed down the average spending of tourists. It is an irony that Nepal positions itself as a low-end destination despite having some of the best places in the world," said Pradhananga.
History shows that Nepal’s tourism began with high-spending tourists. In the initial phase, many westerners visited Nepal at a time when air fares were far more expensive than they are today, and the country only had a few big hotels.
The Tiger Tops lodge in Chitwan, once one of the most exclusive jungle retreats in Asia, used to be a hugely iconic and romantic destination for foreign visitors, always in high demand. Foreign guests would readily splash over USD 200 just on hotel rooms. Likewise, even today, simple tourist related activity packages for Bhaktapur, Basantapur, and Lalitpur Durbar Square, or Chitwan, Lukla, and Pokhara could be introduced and widely promoted to generate high earnings from foreigners. "It is not that this segment of high spenders has disappeared. The competition among travel agents to slash prices to focus on attracting a large number of tourists has led to a drastic fall of this segment of tourists," Pradhananga mentioned. According to him, Nepali tour operators currently focus on USD 100 a day tour packages, while Bhutan has packages starting from USD 230 a day.
NTB former CEO Joshi thinks that Nepal, despite its reputation as a favoured tourist destination in travel sites like Lonely Planet and other platforms, has not been able to attract the lavish segment of tourists. "At present, Nepal has advanced a lot in tourism infrastructure mainly in hotel properties. But in terms of marketing aspects, we are lagging behind," said Joshi.
Tourism entrepreneurs say that the strategy which Nepal has been using for the last five years won't work in the coming days as global travel has changed a lot in the last two years. They stress the need to build up capacity in all aspects of tourism, mainly in the branding of the country and human resources. "The government should also provide incentives to high-end tourist service providers. These are long-term plans and will require proper collaboration," said Pradhananga.
Joshi believes that Nepal has focused too much on adventure tourism, which is more suitable for young people, while ignoring the people between the ages of 50-60 who belong to the high spender group. "People in their 50s mostly aren't adventure enthusiasts. So, we need to develop tourism packages that best suit them like spirituality, religious activities, wellness, and minimalism. It is time for a rebranding of our tourism with a message that we have products for all age groups," suggested Joshi.
Meanwhile, Pradhananga thinks that Nepal is yet to develop infrastructures to support high-end tourism. He says that properties like Tiger Tops Jungle Lounge need to open up to deliver high-end safari services to lavish tourists. "Likewise, districts like Mustang can be developed as a high-end tourism destination," he said, adding, "Furthermore, the government needs to categorise tour operators based on their services."